INDIANAPOLIS — Forget Helio Castroneves has never won an NTT IndyCar Series championship. Forget that he’s just one win shy of moving into a tie for 10th place on the all-time wins list in the series. Forget that when he stepped away from full-time driving in this series that he was third on the all-time poles list, just 17 shy of first. Forget that also when he retired as a full time driver he was second in second place finishes, sixth in career podiums and tied for fourth in career top fives.
A few mores seasons and all those accolades could have moved Castroneves closer to the top of each major statistical category. But, when Team Penske had to downsize from a four car operation to three, Castroneves was unfortunately on the chopping block. Now that there’s a chance for expansion on the Indy Car side for 2021, he doesn’t appear to be in the mix.
That could make Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) Castroneves’ 20th and final start in the big race with Penske. In fact, it could mark his 310th and final Indy Car start with Penske.
Castroneves, moved to the IMSA program, but at seasons end, the IMSA team is closing up shop. With Scot McLaughlin likely getting the nod for the fourth car next year in whatever capacity that it comes in, Castroneves is a free agent and he’s eyeing a full time return even if that means for the first time since 1999, he’s driving for a new team.
“Yes, absolutely,” Castroneves said in wanting a full time deal now for next season. “We have to see what opportunities are out there. I am being loudest and clear, that I want to go back.”
When asked about Roger’s impact on him, that’s when Castroneves seemed a little emotional.
“He’s never given up on me,” Castroneves said of Penske. “He’s became a large part of my life. He’s family. His family is a big part of my life. It’s not only a career. He’s the most powerful man I know and he’s an incredible human being. That’s the memory I want to keep having. We’re still partners in the dealerships. It’s not like it’s over. It’s just the circumstances that we’re dealing and take it as they come.”
He had offers to continue on in pursuit of that first career season title before. But, one thing stuck out for the popular Brazilian driver lately – a fourth Indy 500 crown.
Since Castroneves showed up to Indy as a wide eyed rookie in 2001, this race made him. Castroneves, won in not only his first career start in the big race, becoming just the second rookie in 34 years to drink the milk, but he became the first driver in three decades to repeat as a winner. Yes, 2002 was controversial, but Castroneves nevertheless was declared the victory.
He wanted to three peat in 2003. No one had ever done that before. Instead, he finished second to his teammate Gil de Ferran. Three top two finishes in three tries in the world’s most famous race was a feat in it’s own.
“I think that those stats are definitely going to start being more explored when I’m not here anymore,” Castroneves said on his past Indy success. “We can’t focus on the past though. That stuff is for the museum.”
Castroneves was on the racing map. Unfortunately, it took him seven more starts before he tasted victory again on the famed 2.5-mile oval in 2009. Still, at that point, Castroneves had six top four finishes and eight top 10 finishes in nine tries at Indy. A fourth win would be coming soon right?
In his last 10 tries, Castroneves only had two top five finishes. Both though, were close runner-ups.
Castroneves, finished only 0.0600-seconds behind eventual race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, the second closest finish ever. A few years later, in 2017, he was just 0.2011-seconds behind Takuma Sato for the win, another one of the closest finishes ever.
Combined, Castroneves has lost two Indy 500’s by only 0.2611-seconds in the last five years. Just think about that. If a few inches go differently, Castroneves would be a five-time Indy 500 champion at this point.
“It gives me motivation,” says Castroneves. “No question I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve learned from those opportunities on why they didn’t happen and why I can make it right.”
Penske, dominated this race the last two years. Simon Pagenaud won in 2019 giving Penske their third ‘500 triumph in five years. Can they win for a third straight year?
They looked great on race trim but struggled in qualifying. Can they come through the field? I think so.
If so, watch out for Castroneves. He says that his desire is just as strong now as it was when he showed up here 19 years ago. In fact, it’s actually stronger because he knows what it’s like to win here and so badly wants to get that taste again. He said that he thinks about it literally everyday. He wakes up thinking about a fourth win. He wears his past rings every day and he says when he puts them on, his desire for a fourth victory immediately comes into his head.
Castroneves will start a career worst 28th, but that’s the worst starting position for an eventual Indy 500 winner. It’s happened twice. Can Castroneves, in the No. 3 car, make it happen a third?